Book Review: Original Soundtrack Not Available by Ara Harris

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Poetry has become something of a literary cul-de-sac for most people. There’s a reason for that: most modern poetry is either excessively intellectual (T. S. Eliot and his ilk) or excessively wow-look-at-how-outré-I-can-be (Ginsburg and followers). Both camps come across as if they possess deep wisdom and insights into mystery that the common folk can’t possibly comprehend.

Sorry, whether you’re Mitt Romney or Ezra Pound, an elitist is an elitist and I have no use for you.

Garage poetry is a loose genre consisting of aspiring poets who attempt to remedy this situation the same way Nirvana blasted through the overproduced garbage that people listened to throughout the 1980’s with In Utero and Nevermind. Unfortunately, most garage poetry also winds up in a cul-de-sac as well, simply because many wannabe poets don’t have the sensual talent required to create great poetry. They’re often loud and love to draw attention to outrageous rearrangements of syntax, but most of the time, there is no there there.

Fortunately, we now have Ara Harris, whose first collection, Original Soundtrack Not Available, is now available at Lulu.com. Ms. Harris is a woman with sincere sensual talent, a keen awareness of absurdity and, most importantly, restrained but powerful empathy for many of the lost and lonely characters she creates.

Original Soundtrack Not Available is primarily a collection of prose poems. Some are obviously autobiographical, but Ms. Harris maintains a solid aesthetic distance between subject and object in those situations, without turning too cold in the process. Many of the best poems deal with the sensual-emotional experience of growing up in a boring-as-shit place—places that most of us who grew up in them want to forget. Ms. Harris’ remarkable talent is that she awakens our memory through exceptional sensual description so that we learn that no, life wasn’t entirely dead in the burbs and backwaters; even though the situations seem small and silly in comparison, they were what we knew as life.

You get this right from the start with two brilliant pieces, “Death in a Small Town” and “Welcome Home, Population 3000.” Ms. Harris nails the essence of the experience with lines like “Anything tastes like small town, when you drink it out of Tupperware” and “the fence around your house looks like braces around teeth that don’t mind being crooked” and “He took so much time; now he’s suddenly late for nothing.” The tone is remarkably free of judgment without being devoid of feeling; the experiences simply exist. Like many of the characters who inhabit these towns, they do not self-reflect, they do not see anything wrong, they simply move on to the next predictable experience. While this is why perceptive sensualists have to leave these towns, the poet needs to remember that physical distance is there to help create an aesthetic distance so that when you tell us about your experience, we don’t drown in a flood of unprocessed emotions. Ara Harris gets that: yeah, the experienced sucked, but this isn’t about me—it’s about us. Other poems in the book reinforce this exceptional talent—“Get Your Ticket,” “Fresh Cut Grass” and “The Park After Rain.”

Her poetic vignettes about relationships and encounters are also compelling: “Temporary Amnesia,” “Pixilated,” “Thirty-Seconds,” and “A Good Movie.” There also two powerful poems that may be thematically out-0f-context, but sync beautifully with Ms. Harris’ narrative and sensual talent: “Unholy Cost” and “Last Seen Coming Home on Time.” These gave me the confidence that while Ms. Harris could likely make a career out of being the “poet of the shitty small town,” she has the intellect and curiosity to broaden her horizons.

Personally, I hope she follows whatever butterfly crosses her path, because gifts like hers are rare. Original Soundtrack Not Available is not a perfect collection of poems; after all, this his her first book. Some of the urban poems come across flat; that may be because the genre has become flooded. The photo poem could have used a higher quality printer. Quibbles aside, I hope that the experience of sharing this first book with the public will be a validating one that gives Ara Harris the confidence to keep reflecting, feeling, perceiving . . . and writing.

Book Review: And So It Goes (Kurt Vonnegut: A Life) by Charles J. Shields

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Vonnegut is one of the authors I’ve put aside for years because the temptation to copy his style is too great. Slaughterhouse-Five and Cat’s Cradle would certainly make my Top 100 books list if I had one. There are few modern writers who have created more memorable lines, from brilliant socio-cultural observations (“History! Read it and weep!”) to simple human experience (“then every cell in Billy’s body shook him with ravenous gratitude and applause”).

While I was delighted to hear that Mr. Shields had published a biography of this very influential writer, I was initially dissuaded from pursuing interest after reading Christopher Buckley’s review in the Sunday Book Review section of the New York Times, which described a “sad, and often heartbreaking biography.” Fortunately, I received it as a Christmas gift and my fundamental interest in Vonnegut overcame my reluctance to take on anything gloomy.

I think Janet Maslin’s review reflects my reading experience more accurately than Mr. Buckley’s. What Ms. Maslin and I read was a well-paced and structured narrative attempting to describe an enormously complicated and contradictory man. While there are certainly aspects of his life that would clearly qualify as tragic, Mr. Shields has compiled a compelling, cohesive and balanced narrative that weaves together tragedies and triumphs to give the reader a satisfying,  complete picture of Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. Yes, he alienated his wife, most of his children, a good part of his family and numerous friends—but he was also capable of passionate love, strong commitment and unqualified friendship. Yes, he produced piles of forgettable stories for the mainstream magazine market and some very bad novels—but he also gave us one of the great American novels in Slaughterhouse-Five. The man was a fundamental contradiction, something that I believe made his writing that much stronger.

While Mr. Shields gives detailed accounts of his relationships with his wives, children and lovers, I found the passages dealing with writing to be more dramatic and engaging. The author chronicles in varying degrees of detail the development, publication and reception of each of the novels, giving the greatest amount of attention to Slaughterhouse-Five. I found it amazing that a book that reads like it wrote itself was instead the product of years of struggle against writer’s block, which disappeared only when Vonnegut returned to Dresden and failed to find what he thought he needed to write the novel. Vonnegut went there to collect details and background on what he missed by waiting out the great firestorm in a cellar (about which he felt absurd guilt). Instead, he returned to a place that bore little resemblance to what he had experienced, which forced him to realize that he had to make a significant detour from the path he believed he had to take. Much to his credit, he literally went with the moment, discovering that time itself is the overriding influence on meaning. It was almost as if something inside him reached out and grabbed him by the ears and shouted, “Listen. Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time.”

As a struggling writer (aren’t we all?), I was encouraged by the fact that Vonnegut considered himself a failure during much of his early career, bemoaning the fact that one of his early novels “only” sold 6,000 copies, a figure that a self-published author would die for. Even to the end, he complains that he doesn’t have the status of a Kerouac. These are the parts of the book that “rang true” (pun intended)  for me, confirming that the author’s job is to write the best book he or she can write and realize up front that the reading public may not be in sync with what you have created. Times change, tastes shift, and fame comes with its own form of baggage, as Vonnegut learned during the long, dry period following the success of Slaughterhouse-Five.

The downsides of the book, as Ms. Maslin as pointed out, are that the author did not get to spend much time with Vonnegut before his death and was denied permission to quote from Vonnegut’s letters. I also would have liked it better had Mr. Shields devoted more attention to the development of Vonnegut’s alter-ego, Kilgore Trout. That said, And So It Goes is a fascinating, readable story of a living paradox, a strange concoction of fire and ice, a writer who lived beyond his time . . . in more ways than one.

Book Review: Cassidy Jones and Vulcan’s Gift

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I love an intense experience: a rich cup of espresso, a fine Malbec, a taut and well-played game of baseball. Intensity is a state the occurs when a stimulus is powerful enough to remove you from current time and place and immerse you in an alternative world where senses, emotions and thoughts become more vivid and alive.

That pretty much describes what it’s like to read Cassidy Jones and Vulcan’s Gift.

The second installment in the Cassidy Jones Adventures series does not let up for a moment, from the exceptionally well-written prologue to the end of the book. Even the relatively quiet and “normal” parts (when superhero Cassidy exists in the context of teenage reality) turn out to be fascinating vignettes of the teenage experience, with all the wild-card emotions coming into play. Plot development is tight, the story is well-told and the characters surprisingly authentic for a fantasy adventure.

As I pointed out in my review of Cassidy Jones and the Secret Formula, Cassidy is an exceptional character who would still be exceptional if she were cured of her super powers. At times mature and perceptive, at other times hopelessly adolescent, Elise Stokes has developed a character that is anything but a caricature. This foundational strength is even more apparent in this second book as Cassidy becomes more comfortable with her accidental capabilities while becoming less comfortable with the simmering conflict inside her. She is a very competent superhero but also a teenager with shaky confidence, and it is this combination of strength and vulnerability that makes you want to cheer her on. We never forget that Cassidy, albeit in the exaggerated transformation to superhero, is a young girl always in danger of losing control, which also happens to be what it feels like to be a teenager.

Ms. Stokes has also strengthened the supporting cast, with Emery Phillips (Cassidy’s partner in adventure) also serving as something of a role model who tries to temper Cassidy’s typically teenage tendency to unfairly judge other people. We see this as Emery enlists the help of a chain-smoking layabout named Jason, whom Cassidy immediately rejects as a colleague and whom Emery calmly defends for his virtues and unique moral code. Emery’s dispassionate and open-minded view of human nature contrasts nicely with the labeling tendency we all have in our teenage years (and which some of us cling to through adulthood).

Cassidy also befriends a homeless fellow named (appropriately) Joe, the kind of person who rarely appears on anyone’s radar, much less that of a fourteen-year old girl. Her defense of Joe, who is being attacked by the typical gang of teenagers looking for kicks, tells us a lot about Cassidy’s fundamental sense of decency and fair play. The only problem I had with the book was that there was no final scene with Joe, as I think he could serve as a good friend and mentor for Cassidy; sort of an ironic version of Dumbledore.

I should also mention the forces of evil against whom Cassidy and Emery do battle. The initial encounter with Metal Man was so well-written that I felt like I was there. The final battle against the evil Lily White (a perfect name if there ever was one!) is more tightly-written than the climax in the first book. Ms. Stokes has not spent much time developing the characters on the dark side, which I feel at this stage of the series is a good choice (Voldemort was hardly real until the end of Book 4). However, at some point in the series, we will have to have a better understanding of Cassidy’s definition of evil so that we better understand Cassidy herself.

In my earlier review, I compared the first installment to Ms. Rowling’s efforts and certainly felt that Cassidy Jones held up well. In this second installment, Cassidy takes the lead. I never felt that Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets added much to the series; Rowling really didn’t get moving until Book 3. With Cassidy Jones and Vulcan’s Gift, Ms. Stokes has taken the series to a higher level and the path forward is full of intriguing possibilities.

I will now exist in that exquisitely agonizing space of having to wait a whole year for those possibilities to play out in the next installment.

See the Cassidy Jones Adventures website for more information about the books and the author. 

Recommended Reading

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I decided to get my Top 10 list in before the end-of-the-year crush. The only problem is that while I’ve read about 30 books this year, I didn’t read ten books that I can wholeheartedly recommend. I read several 3-star books this year that were generally enjoyable but just didn’t quite measure up to my snooty five-star requirements.

So, I wound up with a total of four. Sorry.

I read in many genres, most frequently literary fiction, history, biography and baseball the most accessed. Sometimes I’ll skim through business books but that genre is so cliche-ridden that I don’t even consider it reading material.

Sorry. Here are the four 5-star books I read this year:

1. Sleeping with Patty Hearst by Mary Lambeth Moore: A masterpiece of language, psychology and culture, this intensely captivating work is the finest literary fiction I have read in years. This book deserves all the attention it can get.

2. Luckiest Man: The Life and Death of Lou Gehrig, Jonathan Eig: Beautifully and richly told. I found it remarkable that an author can tell a well-known story in such a way that it comes across as fresh and compelling. Published in 2006, so you can see I’m not much of a trend-follower.

3. Cassidy Jones and the Secret Formula by Elise Stokes: I normally don’t read in the YA genre, but the lead character made it worth my while and then some. This is the first book in the series and I’ve judged it for its potential as well as the readability of this volume. The next installment in the series should be out shortly.

4. Hellhound on His Trail, Hampton Sides: An exceptionally gripping and superbly-narrated story of the King assassination and subsequent manhunt with exceptional insight into the motives of the key players. Unforgettable.

I’ll be getting into the writing of the new book in about six weeks, which means that I will stop reading all fiction for however long it takes to finish the book.